Today we hear the same story twice. Same story: different contexts, different characters. But the situation, the choice, is the same: Are you the Child of God or not? In our Gospel translation we hear: If you are the Son of God, but it can just as well be translated: Since you are the Son of God. Fear and evil know just where to strike us: at our identity, at the core of who we believe we are…..Since you are the child of God….
Both of these stories ask the same question of our protagonists: Will you be self-centered and meet your own needs as the snake and the devil lure us to be…..or will you be other-centered, which is to be God-centered, as we are made to be? Since you are the Child of God.
When the Adversary lures the Christ toward his own desires, Jesus responds by turning away from self-centeredness and turning toward God’s desires. This is a living definition of repentance. And do not fail, Beloved, to notice that the Adversary faultlessly quotes Scripture. Knowing Scripture can be used both as a weapon and as a centering guide. We would do well to remember this truth .
It is NOT the quoting of scripture that saves Jesus; it’s the turning toward God—again and again—even when he’s empty and hungry. Because, Beloved, that is always when evil tries to have its way with us: when we are empty and hungry. But even then, the Christ is not drawn away.
There’s an ancient monastic tale that says: an Elder monk said to a businessperson: “As the fish perished on dry land, so you perish when you get entangled in the world. The fish must return to the water and you must return to the Spirit.” The businessperson was aghast and asked: “Are you saying that I must give up my business and go into a monastery?” And the Elder replied: “Definitely not. I am telling you to hold on to your business and go into your heart.”
Go into your heart.
Beloved, here’s my question today: Do we really want to be like Jesus? I mean, really? Do we really want to have the life he had? No place to lay his head; itinerant wanderer; no wife or children; friends who betray him; friends who fail him, friends who refuse to hear him—over and over again.
If we are honest, we probably would rather be one of the Roman leaders: get the best food, the best clothes, better housing—to have some power, authority and status. Or at least maybe a Roman citizen who has a nice quiet life in town. Not bothered by others because you and your rights are protected by the law because you are part of the favored group. Do we really want to be like Jesus: a poor, unknown jewish man in the midst of the Roman Empire?
And if this is what Christianity is about: becoming like Jesus—what does it all mean anyway? Being like Jesus, having Jesus’ life, isn’t exactly the American dream. Why are we even here? What in the world are we doing? Good question.
Beloved, there is one thing that Jesus has that I want. Personally, it’s why I am here. Jesus has one thing that I really, truly want to have: Peace. Peace of mind, body and spirit. Jesus has the ability to handle whatever life throws at him and still see love. Still feel love. Still give love. I want that.
And for Jesus, this peace comes from knowing who he is. With great clarity. Jesus knew from where he came and to where he was going. As the Gospel of John tells us:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.
Yep, on the night before his death, Jesus didn’t go out and make sure he checked all the items off his bucket list; no Disneyland for Jesus. In his last moments, Jesus served his friends. Jesus got on his knees and served others: washed their feet. Their stinky, dirty feet. Jesus loved others—even in the face of death.
That. That’s what I want. I want to have the ability to face whatever life is going to hand me, and even in its scariest, hardest moments, to still be able to love, to still be able to hope, to still be able to have peace. To be so centered in and on love that fear doesn’t have the ability to take over the reins of my spirit, my body, my mind.
After all, courage is not the absence of fear; courage is the ability to keep moving forward in spite of the fear. And Peace is not the absence of conflict, struggle or tension. Peace is being able to remain calm and centered in the midst of those things.
And that, my friends, is what Jesus has—who Jesus is—that I want to have, that I want to be. When we are grounded and centered in Love, like Jesus, then that aching hole of “What does it mean? And Why are we here? And why did it happen?”---that aching hole is no longer at our center. In fact, that hole shrinks and disappears–filled by the presence of the holy, the truth of belovedness. And what is gained is clarity. Jesus has such deep, abiding peace because Jesus knows exactly who he is and Jesus knows exactly why he is there and Jesus knows exactly what it is all about. Because Jesus trusts God’s dream and plan of restoring all Creation back to unity with each other and with the Holy. Jesus is grounded in the truth of the Common Good and he knows he is part of it. He knows he is a sacrament (an outward and visible sign) of the Common Good, of the healing and restoration of all Creation. And, Beloved, when we wake up (maybe for moments or hours or days or years), but when we wake up to the realization that we are a sacrament of Jesus, a sacrament of the Christ, then we too have access to that clarity, that centeredness, that Peace.
Beloved, what if this lent, we begin with the premise that the wilderness we are called to wander these 40 days is the wilderness of our hearts? Go into your heart. And as we wander, we can fast from those ways of being that keep us from love (in the particular and in the general), and we can intentionally and mindfully, feast on the practices, the habits, the inspirations that feed Love within us. Letting the angels—who are the messengers of God, the harbingers of Love—-care for us as we come home to our selves. Growing Love within our minds and bodies. Strengthening our muscles for compassion, mercy and grace.
I’ve quoted Rachel Macy Stafford recently, and repeatedly, and now I do so again: Today I will choose love. Tomorrow I will choose love. And the day after that, I will choose love. And if I mistakenly choose negativity, distraction or perfection, I will not wallow in regret. I will choose love until it becomes who I am.
Since you are the Child of God…..
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37
There is a lot to unpack here—particularly in the Gospel, but also in our reading from Deuteronomy today. But, Beloved, I am not going to tell you what to hear or understand today—well, not exactly. Instead, what I hope I do is to give you a tool to use whenever you are reading/hearing Scripture. A key that can unlock some deeper understanding, some relevant threads to your everyday life, your daily discipleship as followers of this Way of Love. And that key is knowing who your God is. By that I mean, how do you see God?
Do you understand God to be a God of retribution or reconciliation? Retribution means payback, generally it means punishment for an evil deed, a bad act. Reconcilation, of course, is all about mercy, grace, and forgiveness. It is the process of mending, restoring, and putting things to right.
How you hear today’s readings reveals who God is for you—deep down in your DNA.
If God is a God of retribution, then when you hear the reading from Deuteronomy, you hear a threat. If you choose well, then you will be rewarded, and if you choose poorly, God will exact punishment on you and you will not live long. Better get it right, Beloved.
If God is a God of retribution, then in the Gospel you hear Jesus spelling out things in black and white—absolute answers to situations in life—and divorce is off the table and you better mean what you say or God is going to get you.
This God of retribution is a popular God; it is how the Hebrews understood God; it is how many Christians today understand God. It is the God of much of American culture.
But I want to invite you to consider understanding God differently. This is a shift that I myself had to make the longer I followed Jesus, the deeper I moved into my relationship with God and took deeper dives into the Word and held it up to the life, ministry and death of the Christ. The God I know is a God of reconciliation and transformation. This God doesn’t exact punishment for bad behavior because our bad behavior exacts its own punishment. This God isn’t continually watching to catch me when I get it wrong, but continually holding me and catching me when I do get it wrong so that I can stand back up and try again.
This God isn’t interested in figuring out who should be in and who should be out; this God loves and includes all. Without exception. Providing as many chances as we need—in this life and for eternity—for us to come to realize just who God is and how much we are loved, how much we are Beloved. This God gives us as many times as we need to know that we belong, that we are an integral part of the restoration of all Creation. In fact, this God of reconciliation refuses to accept an eternity without me. Without you. Without any one of us.
Beloved, let that sink in. Marinate in that. God can’t bear to go on without you, but God does continue, with openness and receptivity, to invite us to return until each one of us is finally gobsmacked with the truth of just how precious we are, just how precious each bit and bob of Creation is, just how precious every single human being is to the Creator.
So, with this God in mind, we can hear that the reading from Deuteronomy is simply Genesis 1 and 2 all over again—declaring God provides us a choice. We can live as God desires us to live—the Way of Love—and have a full, abundant life (abundant not in possessions, but an abundance of peace, wholeness, wellness) or we can choose our own ways and suffer the consequences of self-centered choices. Again, God doesn’t exact our punishment, but our choices and the choices of others certainly do.
We hear this again in Jesus’ message today. Jesus isn’t transgressing the Law, the Torah, Jesus is transcending it—radicalizing it. In the Lutheran way of understanding Scripture, this is the difference between Law and Gospel. Law is often a black and white, absolute and literal reading of the Word. The Gospel gets at the Spirit—the lifegiving truth that is within the Word—transcending the letter of the Law in order to hear the liberating, loving, and life-giving Good News.
Yes, murder is against the Law, but Jesus is calling us to look at the root of it–our anger, our hate–and calling us to deal with the root–to move toward the tending and restoration of reconciliation. This is not a call to simply end murder, but also to put an end to hostility that kills relationships, that kills possibilities and collaboration, that kills our unity and at-one-ment.
Yes, adultery is a sin, but in Jesus’ day it was a sin only a woman could enact, for she was the man’s property–as were her children. Adultery was about a man’s exclusive right to a woman. Radically, Jesus isn’t addressing women when he speaks of adultery; Jesus is talking to the men and their behavior. And Jesus calls people to the root of the issue, yet again: the intention of the heart. You see in Scripture God is good and evil is anything that opposes God’s will, God’s way of love. So Jesus says when your heart begins to wander from your covenanted promise to your partner—either due to what you see (the eye) or what you do (the hand)---then you must stop immediately. Reconcile that relationship. Which, Beloved, we know might mean that the relationship is restored to a new start with lots of work rebuilding trust OR it might mean that the relationship is ended well. With lots of forgiveness and reparation of wounds. Reconciliation doesn’t come in one kind, but many—and it always leaves whole and well humans behind, not desecrated bodies.
That’s why Jesus says what he says about divorce. In his time it was a man’s right to divorce a wife—leaving her without security, no home, no future. It was using divorce as a means to desecrate another human. Retributive rather than conciliatory. Jesus calls us to a different way. Telling us over and over today: Tend to your relationships. Make Forgiveness, grace and mercy the center of your promises and relationships—not punishment. Not vengeance. Not payback.
How we understand who God is completely colors how we hear and enact the Word, this Good News. If God is simply my God, then the Good News only needs to be Good for me. If God is the God of all, then the Good News needs to be Good for all people.
If God is a God of retribution then God is a judge waiting to determine if we are good enough. If God is a God of reconciliation then God is Love waiting for us to see and know we are the Beloved and we are enough. We are worthy. That all people are enough and all people are worthy. And God allows us to choose between the two. Because to force our hand is not love, but tyranny. Love demands choice.
And here’s the thing: God cannot be both a God of retribution and a God of reconciliation. We cannot hold both as truth. Retribution negates grace and grace refuses retribution. God cannot be both. So, Beloved, who is the God you follow?
Let’s end with this prayer by Padraig O’Tuama of the Corrymeela Community:
God of Reconciliation, You demand much of us—inviting us to tell truths by turning toward each other. May we leave our trinkets where they belong and find our treasure by turning towards each other. Because you needed this. Because we all need this. Amen.
Isaiah 58, verses 9-12 from the Message translation: “If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places--firm muscles, strong bones. You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again. Just a note: the “you” here is 2nd person plural: all y’all
During the pandemic, I found myself hungry for my momma’s homemade bread. Toasted. With butter. But my mother was not yet healed enough to make it. In fact, even though she has rallied—not once, but twice—from major surgeries since 2020, she probably will never make that bread again. So, my momma gave me the recipe; and I made it. And I continue to make it. That recipe is actually my grandma’s recipe; I love seeing her recipe with her handwriting. And I love that bread.
But my momma made it just a bit differently than my grandma; she changed one small step because she had different tools and utensils than my grandma so her shift to the recipe made it a bit easier. Grandma’s bread 2.0. And, after the first time I made the bread, I made one small adaptation myself. Just a bit less salt. So now it’s grandma’s bread 3.0. It’s still grandma’s bread, but it is now in its 3rd iteration. (well who knows: grandma probably got it from her momma and changed it a bit too.) But it still feeds the body and soul (not to mention it smells like heaven), but a bit of the what and how of the recipe has changed.
Church is like my grandma’s bread. It is iterative. It is always becoming.
But most of us think and treat church as if it is a done deal—all already figured out and created—and our work is to simply keep passing it forward. And we can do that, but we are finding, and will continue to find, that if we do that, the body of people we pass it forward to will be a smaller and smaller number. Because the iteration of church that worked in the past—or the one that works for us—-isn’t the iteration of church that works for the present and upcoming generations. Now, that’s some Gospel truth. Each generation isn’t meant to pass forward what’s been passed to them, exactly as it was given them. Each generation is to receive, but then adjust for the current reality and world they are living in—and to make room for what is upcoming and pass forward this thing that has space built in it for the next generation to adapt for their reality. Church is a movement, not a monument; it is always becoming. Like God, it is created and is always creating.
Take Redeemer Lutheran. We started 30 years ago with thoughts and plans about who we were as a body of people, and how we would be that people. And some of those thoughts and plans are in place, and some have had to be let go of because they no longer fit the current reality. Redeemer started in Bannach school, then this part of the building was built. We used to have a Preschool, so the gym and some classroom space and smaller gathering areas that are in the newer part of the building that was built in 2010/2011 was used for them. The Preschool is no longer here, and continuing to expand the building no longer seems like the best use of money and time. The reality we are living in is not what it was back in the 1990s. (and frankly most of my colleagues who have bigger buildings because that was a sign of a successful church, wish they didn’t.) The way forward that was dreamed of in the 1990s may not be the way forward we dream of in the 2020s. Even in 30 years there’s been a big shift. And if we hold onto the dreams of the 1990s and demand that’s the path we build, we will be building a path for a reality that no longer exists.
Or what about the Episcopal Church of the Intercession? It started 170 years ago; I bet those church dreamers would never have dreamed Intercession as it is today. They would not have dreamed of us in this space. And they certainly would not dreamed I would be standing in front of you---a woman with a collar!
So, were they wrong? Were they short-sighted? Those Redeemer and Intercession dreamers?
No. You can only dream in the time you are in. But the trick to dreaming, the trick to building a community is that as you dream—standing in the present—you have to look to the future and train your eyes and hearts to see what is coming rather than to turn and look back to what has been. Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62
Here’s the other thing about church: it isn’t mine. It isn’t yours. It is always ours.
Often we treat church as if it is the YMCA. We pay a customer fee, and then we come and take part in services, or we expect to receive services. We’re a member, and it is the staff and the workers who put the things we wish to attend together and we come and take part as it benefits us. But the church is not the YMCA; it is not a fee-for-services kind of organization, and we are not consumers here. We are disciples.
A church is a school of love. It is where we learn love, where we practice love, where we embody love. It is where we see what love looks like and come to know what love costs.
A local church is a collective. A collective with a mission. Our mission is to restore all of humanity and all of creation back into right relationship with God and one another—through the way of Love that we know as Jesus.
Collectively we fund the mission.
Collectively we provide the energy and effort to live and move forward the mission.
Collectively, we invite, welcome and connect people to build and grow the community.
Collectively we bring our talents and time to provide gatherings that will train us and equip us to live out the mission.
Collectively we dream and sow the seeds that will build the mission, that will give the mission legs and movement, carry it forward to the next generation, the next iteration.
Collectively: as a body of people whose eyes are focused on the one needful thing: Living Love Out Loud.
Listen, it would be easier if church was something that came in a box and all we had to do was read the instructions and put the pieces together and choose which stickers we put on and which stickers we throw away and then we just use the hell out of it until we die, or it dies. And we can do that. Frankly, I think we have done that in Western Christianity—acted as if we were handed a box with all the answers and if we just do it hard enough or loud enough or pretty enough….
But, at its heart, a local church is a gathering of folks who are dreaming together, listening together, so that they can be the living body of Jesus in this world today. In the present moment and reality while preparing to be able to live and move and continue the mission in the moment and reality that is coming over the hill. We are making ourselves available to learn and be equipped to meet the folx on the margins and bring them to the table–or to bring the table to them. We are committed to be vessels of healing, of connection; to be bringers of hope, joy and peace. Beloved, the why has never changed; the why is our mission. But the what and the how change with the times. Sometimes slightly, sometimes shockingly different. If we demand the how and what to remain the same, the why gets lost, like a candle that finally flutters out–overcome by the melting wax—it sputters out.
Recently I read this marvelous book, it’s a children’s book called The Orphan and the Ogress by Kelly Barnhill. I want to recommend it to you. If your child is old enough to read it themselves, get it for them. Or get it and read it together as a family. Or, if you want, we could have a short-term book club for it. It’s that good. Let me just share this bit with you; This bit that reminded me of what church can be:
“A kind of place situated in the midst of a less than kind community. And perhaps that is why someone chooses to give to us. Or perhaps it is because we ourselves are kind. Or because the benefactor is kind. Or because we desperately need that kindness. Or because the benefactor has more than they need and feel obligated to share. Or because they simply enjoy sharing. Or perhaps it is some other reason that we can’t even think of. But the reason for kindness is never as important as the fact of kindness…….
….It was remarkable….how it took only one person deciding to do good things and then convincing others to join us, to create a cascade of good deeds, each one sparking the next. Just think if everyone decided to do good. Just think if everyone decided to do so every day. Or, if not everyone, what if some did, and it still expanded?....
We have been told since we were small that the bad outnumber the good. But I do not believe that is true……One good person can inspire other people to do good things. Good is not a number. Good is more than that. With good, the more you give, the more you have. It is the best sort of magic.”
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.